Posts Tagged ‘Climate change’

Fostering Climate Resilience

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Adaptations in Changing Times

By Eliza Laubach

Chris Oishi discusses his research in “The Electric Forest" at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory. Photo by Karl Bates

Chris Oishi discusses his research in “The Electric Forest” at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory. Photo by Karl Bates

Ancient air bubbles trapped in ice provide a history of the atmosphere from as far back as 400,000 years ago, and tell the story of a new geologic time emerging. The earth’s atmosphere now contains more carbon dioxide than it ever did in these ancient samples, according to NASA, namely because of the potent greenhouse gases released from burning fossil fuels.

This past April, 180 countries signed the Paris climate agreement, which lays out a strategy to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average. In 2015, the Obama Administration released the Clean Power Plan, an unprecedented effort to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in the United States. As of July, global temperatures are 1.03 degrees Celsius above the historic baseline, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information.

Warming temperatures, driven by changes in global atmospheric circulation, are breaking records in the Southeastern U.S. The most recent decade — 2001 to 2010 — was the warmest on record, and in the past three decades the Southeast has experienced more extreme climate and weather disasters than any other region of the United States, according to a Southeast Regional Climate Assessment report. But when it comes to predicting the impacts of global climate change in Appalachia, Virginia State Climatologist Jerry Stenger laughs at the mystery presented by the complex terrain.

Appalachia’s mountain ranges run erratically and often surround valleys, which creates uniquely dry microclimates. Stenger explains that high mountain peaks can also lock thunderstorms in an area, releasing large amounts of rainfall and causing flash flooding. Individual storms cannot be directly linked to climate change. But strong rain events, like the one that led to devastating flooding in West Virginia earlier this year, may well become more frequent, says Stenger, and their effects are intensified by mountainous topography.

The mountains’ unique weather patterns make it challenging to predict how global scale warming will affect the region. According to Stenger, while much of Appalachia will see warming, some areas will see cooling or no change at all. “There’s so many uncertainties, but that’s the nature of it,” he says.

Gauging Impacts on Ecosystems

A little shack at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory houses an automated device that measures stream flow every five minutes to assess water levels. Photo by Judy Schoonmaker.

A little shack at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory houses an automated device that measures stream flow every five minutes to assess water levels. Photo by Judy Schoonmaker.


Appalachia’s biodiverse ecosystems harbor species that thrive in its lush, wet forests and provide the region with ecological resilience, a term that refers to a system’s ability to absorb impacts before changing state altogether. But warming is resulting in longer growing seasons and is leading some plants to climb in elevation or move northward. Some rare and important species are at risk from a more unpredictable climate, such as the spruce-fir forests on the tallest mountain peaks, the region’s uncommonly abundant species of salamanders or the prized brook trout.

Even in southern Appalachia, which boasts a rainforest reputation, the U.S. Drought Monitor shows precipitation was below average across most of the region this year. All over the Southeast, droughts are becoming more common and severe, impacting municipal drinking water supplies, many of which are reservoirs fed by watersheds flowing from private or federally owned forest.

At the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in southwestern North Carolina — a nearly 5,000-acre forest designated for experimental research in 1934 — U.S. Forest Service scientists track stream flow within a watershed to better understand how forest changes affect reservoirs. They also monitor climate and forest changes at places like the so-called “Electric Forest,” a section where trees are rigged with monitoring devices to assess their water uptake. Advanced meteorological tools measure the amount of carbon dioxide cycling through the trees and the atmosphere.

In his research at Coweeta, Chris Oishi has found that southern Appalachian forests absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than originally thought. He discovered that the Electric Forest takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil and plant material, ultimately absorbing more carbon than it generates through decomposing trees or disturbed soil — resulting in what is known as a carbon sink. At Coweeta, about 1.1 tons of carbon are sequestered per acre of forest per year, roughly as much carbon dioxide as the emissions of one average car.

Oishi and his colleagues have also found that climate change is lessening the carbon sink potential of forests as warmer, drier years lessen the trees’ ability to absorb carbon. Species transition within an ecosystem also plays a factor. In one example Oishi noted, as the carbon-absorbing hemlock dies out across Appalachia and is replaced by rhododendron, carbon sinks are diminished.

Forested land would need to increase in size in the Southeast in order to keep up with rising carbon dioxide emissions, says Oishi.

One group working to maintain the Southeast’s forest carbon sinks is the Dogwood Alliance, a conservation advocacy group based in Asheville, N.C. The organization’s Carbon Canopy program is working to create a market for the region’s carbon sinks, providing private landowners and corporate partners with financial incentives to help preserve large tracts of forested land.

seed researcher

Joe-Ann McCoy saves seeds and collects data on sochan, an edible coneflower native to Southern Appalachia and part of Cherokee cuisine. Photo courtesy of Joe-Ann McCoy.

Climate change has the potential to increase a forest’s vulnerability to drought. According to Oishi, the dominant species in southern Appalachian forests is shifting from oak and hickory to tulip poplar and maple, most likely due to fire suppression and climate change. These types of trees use more water, lessening streamflow and water supply. Since record keeping began in 1936 at Coweeta, 80 percent of the severe drought cycles have occurred between 1980 and the present.

During a drought, the forest system becomes stressed when trees and plants compete for water. Higher-elevation hardwood coves host valuable medicinal plants that are especially vulnerable to water scarcity. Some species can be killed off in as little as one season, as opposed to trees, which take several years to die from drought.

Joe-Ann McCoy, director of the North Carolina Arboretum’s Germplasm Repository in Asheville, N.C., works to save the seeds of these important plants, such as black cohosh and ginseng. The seed bank at the arboretum is one of the only ones in the country focusing on native medicinal plants. McCoy is looking for varieties resistent to climate change and focusing on projects with people who have long-standing relationships with these plants.

According to McCoy, seed banks are vitally important for helping people adapt to climate change. For the past seven years, McCoy has been partnering with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on seed saving. Like all tribes in the Southeast, the Cherokee do not have any seed banks. But McCoy is hoping to change this. In collaboration with the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she is helping to establish a program to create seed banks of traditional native and heirloom plants for 26 indigenous tribes.

“We should have already done this 10 years ago,” McCoy says. “Europe is way ahead of us on this.”

Seeding Climate Justice

As social justice and environmental issues more visibly intersect, a solutions-based effort is emerging — climate justice. People who are vulnerable to social and economic challenges are also susceptible to being directly impacted by climate change, such as having fewer resources to rebuild after severe weather events. People in low-income communities are more likely to be impacted by the fossil fuels that cause climate change — such as people who live near power plants. Climate justice aims to address all of these issues at once.

Stan Johnson, co-founder of Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development in Knoxville, Tenn., teaches city residents about shifts they can make to lessen their impact on the climate while also empowering youth from the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

SEEED designed its program to reflect two community concerns: high energy bills and the lack of local, high-paying jobs. Participants in this program are trained in career readiness and complete door-to-door neighborhood education about energy efficiency. SEEED also received a grant for recycling education.

SEEED accomplishment

A SEEED participant is congratulated on completion of a program. Photo courtesy of SEEED.


According to Johnson, the organization’s expertise is reaching people in the community who are not reached by traditional media pathways. “We don’t want it to be just the eco-elite with the solar panels and hybrid cars,” he says. “Bring it down to the everyday person — what they can do.”

Tom Rodd, initiative director of Allegheny Highlands Climate Change Impacts Initiative sees climate change and social justice issues intersecting in low-income communities that are polluted by coal mines. Rodd has educated residents, held conferences, and published reports about climate impacts in Central Appalachia.

West Virginia’s economy is built on fossil fuels including coal, says Rodd, and talking about climate change can be very difficult for people who have mined and extracted these resources for generations. “Nobody told them they were at risk of losing their jobs because of the tiny molecule CO2 that has the potential of destroying the planet,” he says.

Part of the solution, he says, is to financially support these communities and fight for a more just transition away from a fossil-fuel dependent economy. He speaks in broad terms about what is at stake: the loss of fish habitats and forests, and increased flooding and more frequent heat waves. He has had the most success with teachers and students, the least success with politicians. In West Virginia, he says, “it’s an adjustment process for everybody.”

During canvassing, SEEED invites the community to an energy efficiency workshop. Photo courtesy of SEEED

During canvassing, SEEED invites the community to an energy efficiency workshop. Photo courtesy of SEEED

Allegheny Highlands is now focusing primarily on climate change education for teachers. Rodd’s generation helped create the problem, he says, but it will be up to the next generation to fix it.

To avert climate chaos, Jodi Lasseter, founder and co-convener of the North Carolina Climate Justice Summit, encourages a culture shift achieved by developing authentic relationships across differences, such as race, age and gender. The summit, in its third year, unites high school students, community organizers and nonprofit changemakers from across the state. The groups learn from and inspire each other to “reform, resist, reimagine and re-create the societal systems that constructed fossil fuel-induced climate change,” says Lasseter.

The event, held in Browns Summit, N.C., gives attention to those who are directly impacted by fossil fuels. Last year, a member of Walnut Cove, N.C., which is polluted by coal ash, participated in a frontline community panel.

With the increasing threat of climate change, ecological resilience is important for Appalachia’s biologically sensitive areas. The ability of the region to develop solutions relies on the strength of its scientific and grassroots communities. According to Lasseter, it’s critical that those who are not on the front lines of climate impact stand in solidarity.

“We want to reclaim our people power to take collective action,” she says.

2016 State Legislatures on Climate Change

North Carolina: This year saw the sunset of a state tax credit for renewable energy, and state regulators rejected a petition that would have increased access to solar power by allowing companies other than Duke Energy to finance solar panel installations.

Virginia: Although the legislature blocked the Clean Power Plan’s implementation in the state, the governor issued an executive order for state agencies to develop carbon reduction strategies by spring 2017.

West Virginia: The legislature defeated an effort to repeal the state’s adoption of national science education standards that include climate change, but adopted curriculum changes that downplay the link between climate change and human causes.

Kentucky: A new law establishes a prescribed fire burn program set to begin by summer 2017. Prescribed burns imitate historical forest management and diminish wildfire risk, which is increasing with climate change, according to USFS scientists.

Tennessee: Under a new law, farmers now have greater protection to open Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, even if they are deemed a public or private nuisance. These massive livestock operations are significant sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Alabama Coal Company Sued for Water Pollution and Other Shorts

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Alabama Coal Company Sued for Water Pollution

On Sept. 1, conservation groups announced a lawsuit against Drummond Company for acid runoff from its abandoned Maxine Mine into the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River near Praco, Ala. The suit was brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center, Public Justice and Black Warrior Riverkeeper, the newest member of The Alliance for Appalachia. — Elizabeth E. Payne

Petition to Pause Nuke Plant

In a petition to the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council argued that Dominion Virginia Power must obtain a permit before proceeding with any further construction of a nuclear reactor at the North Anna Power Station. The $19 billion project has not been approved by regulators and, although it is included in Dominion’s long-term plan, the utility has not committed to bringing the reactor into service. Nearly $600 million has already been spent on preliminary construction, half of which has been passed on to Virginia ratepayers. — Brian Sewell

Duke Energy’s 15-year Plan

In its 15-year plan released in September, Duke Energy Carolinas projected a 1 percent growth in electricity demand. But between now and 2030, the company predicts a tripling of solar capacity and the continued displacement of coal-fired electricity by natural gas. Due to the uncertainty of fuel prices and future regulations, the plan analyzes the possibility of a new nuclear facility in upstate South Carolina.— Brian Sewell

Price of Met Coal Rises

Bucking the nationwide trend, Kentucky-based Ramaco Development, LLC, announced in September that it will begin operations next year at two mines in West Virginia and Virginia. Both mines will produce metallurgical coal used to manufacture steel. After a steep drop in 2015, global prices for metallurgical coal have rebounded in recent months largely, due to demand in China. But it’s not clear how many cash-strapped mining companies in Central Appalachia will benefit from the market’s shift.— Brian Sewell

Spill Leads to Gas Shortages

A pipeline supplying transportation fuel to much of the Southeast ruptured in September, spilling 338,000 gallons of gasoline in Alabama. Most of the gasoline collected in a man-made retention pond at a nearby strip mine, which minimized the impact to the Cahaba River system. But fuel shortages affected drivers in five states. On Sept. 21, Colonial Pipeline announced that service has been restored as cleanup continues.

Feds Account for Climate Change

A new guidance from the White House Council of Environmental Quality requires that federal agencies consider how their actions will influence climate change and how climate change will impact their actions.

N.C. Closer to Wind Energy

In August, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it will lease more than 122,000 acres off the North Carolina coast for commercial wind energy development.

Natural Gas CO2 Emissions Rise

Although natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal when burned, it now accounts for more energy-related carbon dioxide emissions due to major increases in consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Scientists Question Fracking Safety

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board is challenging a draft report by the agency that found little negative impact on drinking water from hydraulic fracturing. In a letter sent to the EPA on Aug. 11, the scientists called the report “comprehensive but lacking in several critical areas.”

Duke Energy’s empire grows with natural gas

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 - posted by brian
 The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., and Duke Energy is at the forefront of a historic fuel switching trend.

It’s both a sign of the times and a warning of things to come. Duke Energy’s purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas was finalized this week after North Carolina utility regulators signed off on the deal.

Duke executives say the $4.9 billion acquisition will bolster the company’s position in the natural gas sector by tripling its existing base of 525,000 gas customers and expanding its footprint into Tennessee. Their cheerful announcement also casts natural gas in a familiar light — as the clean, climate-friendly fuel of the future.

“This combination provides clear benefits to our customers and the environment as we continue to expand our use of low-cost and clean natural gas and invest in pipelines,” Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a statement.

These days, terms like “clean” and “low-cost” come standard with efforts to tout the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas relative to other energy sources. By now, they should also set off alarm bells.

One of the nation’s largest electric providers, Duke has brought four natural gas-fired power plants online in North Carolina since 2011 to replace shuttered coal-fired capacity. Earlier this year, the company received expedited approval of plans to convert a fifth, its Asheville plant, from coal to gas.

A similar story is playing out in other states where Duke operates. Florida, which ranks third in solar potential but 14th in installed capacity, relies on gas to meet two-thirds of its electricity demand. Duke subsidiary Progress Energy operates several gas-fired facilities in the Sunshine State, including the 1,912-megawatt Hines Energy Complex.

Other large investor-owned utilities aren’t far behind. Florida Power & Light, also among the nation’s largest electric utilities, and Duke are partners in the controversial $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline, which will stretch nearly 500 miles from Alabama to central Florida.

Duke based its decision to purchase the Charlotte-based Piedmont on sustained market trends that forecast a continued expansion of natural gas’ role in the nation’s energy mix. The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011. Click to enlarge.

And the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Duke’s most recent long-term resource plan proposes constructing three plants that would add nearly 2,500 megawatts of gas-fired generation in the Carolinas. The plan also calls for multiplying installed solar capacity threefold by 2031, but says solar’s “limited ability to meet peak demand conditions” makes more gas generation essential to ensure reliability.

“A thoughtful transition is what we are seeking, not a headlong rush to dependency on any one fuel,” Duke’s director of integrated resource planning, Glen Snider, told the Charlotte Business Journal.

Fair enough. Duke often claims credit for diversifying its portfolio ahead of the curve, although North Carolina’s renewable energy standard and tax credits for renewables have played a considerable role. But today, the company’s large stake in the $5 billion proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline threatens to counteract that thoughtful transition. If the 550-mile pipeline is built, Duke’s gas-burning power plants would be among its primary users.

Continuing to invest in massive pipelines designed to last decades could result in stranded assets, costly liabilities created when capital-intensive projects like pipelines or power plants are forced to retire before the end of their economic usefulness. This is especially true if the United States plans to do its part to meet international climate goals.

“We’ve been building gas power plants like crazy for the last 10 years,” Lorne Stockman, the author of a report on gas infrastructure for the group Oil Change International told Utility Dive. “I don’t see anyone really sitting down and saying how many more can we build if we are really going to make this transition.”

Replacing existing gas capacity with renewables may be unlikely in the near-term. But that doesn’t make the long-term planning decisions being made today any less problematic, because they foreshadow an energy future that experts are urging us to avoid.

Burning Southern Forests to Fuel Europe

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

Forests across the Southeast are seen as a potential source of “green” energy by the growing wood pellet industry. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance

Forests across the Southeast are seen as a potential source of “green” energy by the growing wood pellet industry. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance

Near Ahoskie in eastern North Carolina, the global push for “green” energy can look like a grove of cypress trees reduced to a wasteland of stumps. This scene is repeated across the Southeast, where forests are being cut to fuel Europe’s — and particularly the United Kingdom’s — push to use alternative fuels.

In 2009, the European Union adopted a set of energy and climate goals for 2020. These targets included a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency and a commitment to fuel 20 percent of the E.U.’s energy from renewable sources.

The guidelines consider all biomass, regardless of its source, both carbon neutral and renewable. The European Commission defines biomass as “organic material such as trees, plants, and agricultural and urban waste … used for heating, electricity generation, and transport fuels.”

Despite its well-meaning goals, this policy has led to the dramatic rise of the wood pellet industry in the southeastern United States.

According to the United Kingdom’s Biomass Energy Centre, “wood pellets are made by compressing dry sawdust or wood shreds under extremely high pressure until the [wood tissue] softens and binds the material together.” Their compact size and low moisture content make wood pellets better for export and more energy dense than less processed wood.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the country’s export of wood pellets nearly doubled from 1.6 million tons in 2012 to 3.2 millions tons in 2013. The following year, exports increased by an additional 40 percent, rising to 4.4 million tons and making the United States the world’s leader in wood pellet export. Most of the pellets are shipped to the United Kingdom to help meet the EU targets set in 2009.

Mature trees, not merely limbs and branches, enter the Enviva wood pellet manufacturing plant in Ahoskie, N.C. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance

Mature trees, not merely limbs and branches, enter the Enviva wood pellet manufacturing plant in Ahoskie, N.C. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance

According to a study published in Science Magazine in 2013, forests in the southeastern United States had a disturbance rate four times greater than that of South American rainforests during the years between 2000 and 2012. Forest disturbance can result from natural events such as fires or insect damage, or from man-made events such as logging or clear-cutting.

Adam Macon, a campaign director for Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Asheville, N.C., connects this increase with the large-scale logging operations that support the wood pellet export industry and have impacted tens of millions of forested acres.

Many southeastern wood pellet factories are large operations located near the coasts for greater access to ports for export. But small facilities serving local markets also exist in Southwest Virginia and western North Carolina.

Calculating Carbon Cost

The problem with identifying all biomass as carbon neutral arises from a misunderstanding of how burning biomass would impact climate change.

Policies, such as those in the European Union, that consider biomass to be carbon neutral are based on the assumption that carbon released when burning trees will be reabsorbed by a subsequent generation of forests replanted in place of the harvested trees. However, a report released by the Partnership for Policy Integrity in June concludes that far from being carbon neutral, burning wood on a large scale can be worse than burning fossil fuels.

“Typical [carbon dioxide] emissions at a utility-scale biomass plant are 150% those of a coal-fired plant, and as much as 400% those of a natural gas facility,” the author of the report states. “Not only does burning wood emit more carbon pollution per unit energy than burning coal or gas, but also, cutting and burning the trees that were growing and taking carbon out of the atmosphere dramatically increases the emissions impact.”

In May 2015, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, pointed to the growing scientific consensus that burning biomass for electricity would not reduce carbon emissions for 35 to 100 years, depending on the types of forests replanted. “This time period is significant,” an issue brief from the organization states. “Climate policy imperatives require dramatic short-term reductions in greenhouse gases, and these emissions will persist in the atmosphere well past the time when significant reductions are needed.”

BioEnergy in the Southeast

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This is because emissions rates would only begin to fall after the forests have had several decades to recover, and only if the harvested trees are replanted and not themselves reharvested. Neither of these outcomes is guaranteed to happen.

Due in large part to advocacy by citizen and environmental groups, the European Commission announced in January that it has opened an investigation into whether the United Kingdom’s dependence on biomass to meet its emission goals is in keeping with European Union climate objectives. It is unclear what impact the United Kingdom’s recent vote to leave the E.U. will have on this climate policy.

In April, the U.S. Senate passed a bill including an amendment that new energy policies must reflect the “carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy.” This provision is similar to the E.U. policy that has dramatically impacted southeastern forests. If enacted, the measure would likely lead to continued deforestation.

Biomass Closer to Home

Utilities in the Southeast are also converting to biomass. Since 2013, Dominion Virginia Power has converted three of its coal-fired power stations to burn 100 percent biomass, and Duke Energy is exploring similar options.

According to Biomass industry officials, these facilities use wood that would otherwise be wasted. Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, told National Public Radio that the process relied on materials such as “orchard prunings and rice hulls, tops and limbs from forestry operations, bark, sawdust.”

A 2012 report by Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting group, found that if biomass is produced from wood that would otherwise be wasted, and if energy production is at a small scale, biomass could play an important role in an Appalachian energy future relying primarily on renewables such as wind and solar.

But Adam Macon of Dogwood Alliance is less optimistic.

“Existing forest products industries, such as paper or saw timber, have been utilizing the residues from logging for generations,” Macon says. “So, this is not like there was a whole bunch of wood just lying around. …This is an additional market for wood. And what that has done is that has driven an increase in logging, and an increase in conversion of our natural forests to pine plantations. All in the name of addressing climate change.”

A cypress grove is reduced to stumps near the Enviva wood pellet factory in Ahoskie, N.C. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance

A cypress grove is reduced to stumps near the Enviva wood pellet factory in Ahoskie, N.C. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance

Macon and his colleagues from Dogwood Alliance have documented trucks loaded with mature trees entering — and empty trucks leaving — Enviva’s wood pellet facility in northeastern North Carolina, which primarily produces pellets for export. This practice was also witnessed by a reporter from The Washington Post last summer.

Macon, who grew up in eastern Kentucky a few miles from a mountaintop removal coal mine site, puts the wood pellet industry in context this way: “It’s the same story. It’s big companies coming in, extracting our natural resources, exporting the profits, exporting our natural capital, and leaving little benefits back to the communities,” he says.

If I had a hammer…

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 - posted by Lara Mack

Finding collective power at the “March on the Mansion”

Appalachian Voices' Virginia Field Organizer Lara Mack (l) and friend Amy Cantrell from Harrisonburg.

Appalachian Voices’ Virginia Field Organizer Lara Mack (l) and friend Amy Cantrell from Harrisonburg.

Last Saturday, more than 600 Virginians gathered at the footsteps of Governor McAuliffe’s mansion in Richmond to demand energy justice for all citizens of the Commonwealth. Chartered buses arrived from major cities including Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, and Roanoke, as well as rural areas like Nelson County and Montgomery County.

I helped organize the bus from Harrisonburg, where I live, and we started our drive to Richmond with the song If I had a Hammer:

“If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land

And I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land…”

This well-known song was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 in support of social justice efforts of the time. For us, starting with the historical tune was a clear reminder that this march was not just about fracked-gas pipelines, climate change, coal ash, and renewable energy, but also about the stories and struggles of people impacted by corporate power and monied special interests.

Our voices were represented in an open letter, signed by more than 60 organizations, sent to Governor McAuliffe last month. Saturday’s march was the next step; We walked as a part of a legacy for democracy, environmental justice, and the power of community.

The bus arrived and the doors opened to a hazy and hot day on the banks of the James River. The temperature was expected to reach 99 degrees, which meant the day felt more like 104 degrees. We took a group photo before the march (why not get a photo of us before we all wilt?) with our signs and grins and enthusiasm easily seen in the snapshot.

by laraAs other marchers slowly arrived from all corners of the Commonwealth, I saw the crowd of dedicated and concerned citizens grow. Many carried creative signs about the local issue their community was struggling with (my favorite was “NO PIPELINES. Especially [from schools] to prisons”). Though the messages were diverse, the overarching statement was very clear. We know what is best for our communities. We know that we can create a system that can be safe and healthy for all, that doesn’t create sacrifice zones or climate change to meet monolithic electricity production expectations, that doesn’t deny a person’s rights and humanity no matter their race, age, income or sexual orientation, or whether they live in the country or in the city. And the current system is not meeting our needs.

The “March on the Mansion” was a message directed at Governor Terry McAuliffe and our voices rang loud and clear. But as we gathered back on our buses to head home, I realized this gathering was also a reminder to all those in the crowd that we each carry a hammer, a bell, and a song and when we stand as a community together, we can get work done.

Making sense of crisis: The West Virginia floods

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: In this guest post, West Virginia resident and former coordinator of The Alliance for Appalachia Katey Lauer shares her perspective on the aftermath of the floods that devastated several West Virginia counties late last month, and the humanity she has witnessed as communities come together and begin to rebuild. To learn where you can volunteer or donate money and supplies, visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s WV Flood Resources page.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

“… My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

— Adrienne Rich

This might be an article where I tell you how devastating the flood has been. Where I tell you that the flood waters are not water at all. That they are sewage and mud and oil. That they are bits of plastic and metal. I might tell you that it’s four days into flood relief and I can’t get the smell out of my nose or off my skin.

And I might explain how I can’t shake the worst of the stories: how I sat with a grandmother who told me how she climbed to the top of a kitchen stool late Thursday night while the debris rose higher and higher around her ankles then knees then waist.

How I heard about a woman alone in her home in a wheelchair, waters rising up to her neck while her dogs piled onto her lap — all of them screaming. How her family heard her from outside but couldn’t get in.

I might tell you about the kind young man in the town where 17 people died. How he pointed out the mountain where he fled with his mother just after showing me the water line on the carport outside, well above our heads.

But the floods aren’t just about that.

Because this might also be an article about strength through hardship. About that phrase I see on fast food boards and church bulletins: “West Virginia Strong.” And I could tell you how my guess is that that sign is about the families on 5th Street in Rainelle, about the cheerleaders serving up soup beans and cornbread in the Kroger parking lot to anyone who’s hungry, about the volunteers sorting a pile of clothing 20 feet high in an Elkview gym, about the women running the volunteer check point in Clendenin. I could tell you about everyday heroes, but the floods aren’t just about that either.

IMG_2646

Because this article could be about issues: About our failing infrastructure. About climate change. About poverty. About how working-class, rural America is so unseen by the rest of our nation. I could say that.

But then there’s also the way that strangers come together in these moments of crisis. How I hauled heavy, putrid carpet with a dear old friend and a man I’d never met. How I piled water-logged drywall on a pile of building refuse with a man from Florida. How a woman stopped us on the street to give us a warm meal — a woman whose name I didn’t know and who I’d never see again.

Then I could tell you about the ugly parts, about people fighting in sadness in the streets. About that wits-end sort of withdrawal on the face of an older woman. I could say how I wonder where these tons of waste will be shipped and guess that it’s other poor communities that will deal with this new burden. I could tell you about the national guardsman, eyeing me for too long in a shirt tight with the damp.

But the thing that feels closest to the truth is that there is not one story here. In times of crisis, we can look for saviors and goodwill, we look for peeks at what’s best in the human spirit. We can look for a way to make sense of it — to give it a purpose. We can look for the revelation. If you have been touched by this crisis, my guess is you might well have found some of that. But you have likely also found more. I know I have. If these floods have taught me anything, it’s that crisis is not tidy. It is more threads than fabric.

What I mean is that crisis does not make us super-human; it makes us more human. The floods that have washed away homes and possessions and loved ones have also washed away pretense. And at the end of the day, here we are, neighbors and strangers, ankle deep in receding waters, doing our best — in our beauty and our faults — to reconstitute the world.

Visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s Flood Resources page to donate and find other ways to support relief efforts.

A power play for Virginia’s power plan

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Citizens signal their support for clean energy at a recent meeting of the Dept. of Environmental Quality's Clean Power Plan stakeholders group,

Citizens signal their support for clean energy at a recent meeting of the Dept. of Environmental Quality’s Clean Power Plan stakeholders group.

The shift to a clean energy economy in Virginia faces many obstacles – extreme mining, extreme drilling, and apparently extreme legislating. Weeks after the 2016 General Assembly’s regular session adjourned, opponents of clean energy progress attacked state climate policy in an unorthodox way: through the budget of the agency tasked with preparing a state plan to cut carbon pollution.

Those budget provisions will take effect July 1, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s not stopping Appalachian Voices and other organizations and clean energy advocates from continuing to push for a transition to wind, solar and energy efficiency.

Let’s take a step back and see how we got here. But first, a quick primer. In August 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed the historic Clean Power Plan, the first federal rule to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s fleet of coal-fired power plants. Based on years of research and public feedback, the rule establishes a series of deadlines, as well as individualized reduction goals for each state, and provides a framework for states to devise their own plan for how to get there on time. The rule was immediately challenged by the fossil fuel industry and their political allies, and earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stayed the rule pending further review.

State government: Checks, balances and the occasional blatant overreach

At stake in this past Virginia legislative session, as it was in the 2015 session, was control over the state plan to implement the federal Clean Power Plan., and whether the General Assembly would wrest that authority away from the governor.

Bills mandating that the legislature approve a state plan prepared by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) were introduced and approved, with highly charged rhetoric and dire claims of skyrocketing utility bills used to justify the power grab. Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed these bills, for the time being preserving his administration’s opportunity to produce a strong carbon reduction plan on time.

Meanwhile, an official stakeholders group convened by DEQ began working through many fiendishly technical areas, from the pros and cons of basing standards on emissions rates versus using an overall statewide cap, or mass-based plan, to the thorny socially oriented questions like how the state plan can yield the most benefit for low-income Virginians and what approaches would yield jobs where they are needed most.

But as it turned out, the struggle to uphold administrative authority over the process was not over, and it continued into the spring when a budget amendment (369#1c) was introduced that would ensure that funds for DEQ to plan state compliance with the Clean Power Plan be withheld. The budgetary tactic was unusual, sidestepping the responsibilities that normally rest with each branch of government. The legislature was becoming involved in a matter delegated to the executive, not ordinarily within its purview, by going after the “purse strings.” This break with tradition may be viewed as a symptomatic part of a larger, multi-issue partisan divide.

Amid murky intricacies of the Constitution of Virginia, Governor McAuliffe did not exercise a full veto of the budget amendment, but rather made a line item edit, striking a reference to using funds “for planning” state implementation of the new standards. The prospect of upholding this fix was slim, requiring 51 votes out of 100 members of the House of Delegates, spelling real trouble for the state’s formal planning process, which was on track to produce a draft outline by early summer 2016. As expected, the amendment language prevailed, revoking DEQ funding as of July 1, 2016, for state planning.

While aiding polluters, CPP stop-work order shortchanges Virginia workers and communities

As energy markets continue to shift, our sources for generating electricity need to diversify, and the change is underway. From the proliferation of solar arrays on Virginia homes and small businesses to mid-size and large projects at data centers and universities, examples bear out the proven economics of renewable energy. According to the Energy Foundation, Virginia has seen an increase in jobs in the solar energy business of 157% since 2012, and this is a field that is immune from outsourcing, like home energy efficiency assessment and retrofitting.

The state DEQ is first charged with ensuring adherence to pollution limits in Virginia. However, the scope of its work has extended to consider the policy impacts of how air and water pollution are reduced, from the cost savings or increases to energy customers to the reliability of the electric grid over time. Perhaps no aspect of the issues that DEQ deals with is more deserving of its attention than the environmental justice implications of these rules.

Areas of Virginia that have been burdened by job loss, disproportionately high energy bills relative to household income, and extractive activities that carry environmental risks deserve immediate attention. While these communities should be directly involved in designing a just and beneficial state carbon-reduction plan, political grandstanding may shut down the planning effort altogether. Leaders that operate by rigid, lock-step dedication to polluting industries are clearly missing opportunities to act in the interest of the people they represent.

DEQ may yet be able to carry out work with similar aims to the Clean Power Plan in the absence of the planning funding. The agency intends to meet new rules for the energy sector, as Director Paylor made clear in remarks made during public stakeholder meetings, and Governor McAuliffe has stated support for this approach and will still have a chance to leave a robust legacy in that regard. But there is uncertainty over Virginia’s ability to have a plan by the EPA deadline. If we fail, a federal plan will be imposed, without the same level of public input in Virginia. In that situation, there will be a greater need than ever for citizens to engage with the administration and with our legislators to pursue a clean energy future in the commonwealth.

Where the Clean Power Plan court case stands

Just as a strong majority of Virginians expects government officials to take meaningful action to address carbon pollution, national polls reflect that the Clean Power Plan is popular – even in states that are suing over the plan. And just as there are opponents in Virginia, including elected officials who put politics over people and use red-herring arguments to justify calling off the planning process, there are opponents who have sued over the EPA’s rule.

The legal challenges were filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which would normally hear it before a panel of only three judges.But the process has been changed for this case, likely due to the significance of the issues involved, and it will now be an en banc hearing with at least nine judges presiding. The court will meet September 27, which sounds like a delay from the previous hearing date of June 2, but since the full court might have asked to review the decision, and prolonged the process anyway, this change may actually streamline the case.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, as the planning funding restrictions draw closer, watch for news in Virginia as to how the McAuliffe administration plans to move forward with Clean Power Plan planning.

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Virginia’s Clean Power Plan approach unchanged after court’s action

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reduce carbon pollution after the U.S. Supreme Court hit pause on the Clean Power Plan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reduce carbon pollution after the U.S. Supreme Court hit pause on the Clean Power Plan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court made a disappointing decision by issuing a “stay” of the Clean Power Plan. But that doesn’t mean what polluters and their allies would have you believe it does – and the opportunity is as great as ever for Virginia to develop a truly bold plan.

The day after the high court’s decision, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reach our goals to cut back on carbon pollution:

“Over the last several months my administration has been working with a diverse group of Virginia stakeholders that includes members of the environmental, business, and energy communities to develop a strong, viable path forward to comply with the Clean Power Plan. As this court case moves forward, we will stay on course and continue to develop the elements for a Virginia plan to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate our clean energy economy.”

For a state like Virginia, which began engaging stakeholders last fall and has a state planning process in full swing, this stay might have been taken as a reason to slow or halt our process by signaling to leaders unfamiliar with the legal foundations of the Clean Power Plan that it might be overturned.

In fact, the Supreme Court has already upheld the EPA’s authority to limit carbon pollution, as Virginia’s leaders know. A solid grounding in existing law — namely the Clean Air Act — increases the likelihood that the Clean Power Plan will survive. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit must now consider briefs and arguments, and has agreed to an expedited timeframe for this work, with arguments expected in early June.

Overwhelming support exists for prioritizing clean energy and efficiency – we can’t stop now!

Virginia is one of many states moving forward with implementation. Smart leaders will continue down that path. With more than two-thirds of Americans supporting the Clean Power Plan, including numerous prominent companies and investors, our country wants action to address carbon pollution and climate change.

There is already an inescapable trend shifting the electricity sector from the pollution-intensive fuels of the past to a safer, cleaner future – with the big caveat that, especially in the Southeast, it is critical to combat investments in gas-fired power, an energy source all-too-widely believed to have a cleaner production and combustion process than it really does.

There’s more that we’re counting on Governor McAuliffe to deliver

Virginia is positioned to implement a long-term plan to cut carbon pollution while simultaneously boosting the economy, creating new jobs and reducing customers’ electricity bills. Despite this, some of Virginia’s biggest polluters are out to rig the plan to benefit their bottomlines by building new fossil fuel infrastructure.

If the polluters get their way, Virginia could actually see a net increase in greenhouse gases under the Clean Power Plan. The ultimate decision lies in the governor’s hands. The question is: will he side with Dominion and choose a plan that increases global warming pollution or create a plan true to the intentions of the Clean Power Plan that charts a healthier future for the commonwealth?


Take action now and call on Governor McAuliffe to remain committed to “staying the course” for a bold Clean Power Plan in Virginia.

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Clean Power Plan Clears Legal Hurdle

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Brian Sewell

Editor’s Note: This article was written before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay that temporarily halts implementation of the Clean Power Plan. To read more about this update, visit here.

States challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in federal court are running out of legal options and losing valuable time as most states look to a carbon-constrained future. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals refused to suspend the Obama administration’s climate regulations while lawsuits move through the courts.

That’s bad news for states including North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky that are seeking to block the plan despite public support for clean energy and limits on carbon emissions from power plants. But according to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is leading the case against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the plaintiffs “remain confident that our arguments will prevail as the case continues.”

Days after the the decision, states and industry groups petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to put a stop to the Clean Power Plan. While early legal challenges appear to be floundering, attempts to obstruct the plan at the state level are alive and well.

Officials in North Carolina crafted what its critics are calling a “plan to fail,” primarily to draw the EPA into a legal battle, that achieves less than 3 percent of the reduction in annual carbon emissions required under the Clean Power Plan. Kentucky’s top environmental regulator announced the state would seek an extension for its compliance plan, taking care to note that there is no “minimal level of progress” required for an extension.

At press time, the EPA and groups supporting the Clean Power Plan — including 18 states, more than two dozen power companies, clean energy associations and public health and environmental groups — were filing their responses to the request before the Supreme Court.

Catholic Letter Addresses Environment, Economy

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia released its third pastoral letter in December 2015, stating in its introduction, “We recognize a deepening ecological crisis and new pressures on our struggling communities.”

Catholic pastoral letters are typically written by a bishop, but this People’s Pastoral highlights the voices of ordinary citizens. The Catholic Committee of Appalachia spent four years conducting listening sessions and interviews throughout the region, documenting the stories of residents from a variety of religious traditions.

The committee focuses on social justice and environmental issues including mountaintop removal coal mining, water quality, climate change, poverty and health. The People’s Pastoral is one of many declarations from various religions in the recent years that highlights a faith-based ethic of environmental stewardship. To learn more, visit ccappal.org — Molly Moore